Myth 1: Condoms provide full protection against HPV
Fact: Condoms can help to reduce the risk of HPV infection. But, they will not provide you, or your partner, with complete protection. That’s because HPV can live on the skin around the whole genital area, such as the pubic area, vulva, or scrotum. It can also spread through skin-to-skin contact in these areas.
You can get vaccinated against HPV to help protect yourself from infection. As well as condoms, you can also use a dental dam to reduce your chance of getting HPV. This is a thin plastic square placed over your anus or vagina during oral sex.
Myth 2: The HPV vaccine will protect you against all STI infections
Fact: The HPV vaccine will significantly reduce your risk of getting an HPV infection. It will also help to protect you from developing some HPV-related cancers, including cervical cancer, and genital warts. But it will not protect you against other sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia.
Having regular cervical screening (a smear test) after the HPV vaccine will help to pick up and treat infections. Practicing safe sex also helps reduce the risk of HPV infection.
Myth 3: The HPV vaccine is only for young people
Fact: The HPV vaccine is routinely offered in the UK to all young people aged 12 to 13 as part of the national childhood immunisation programme. And a catch-up HPV vaccine is available for young people under the age 25, who missed out on it. It’s also offered at specialist Sexual Health Services and HIV clinics. Men who have sex with men, and people who identify as transgender, up to the age of 45, can get the vaccine if they attend these clinics.
Having the vaccine at an early age will provide you with the best protection. You can also benefit from the vaccine if you’ve already been sexually active.
Myth 4: You will get cancer if you have any HPV type
Fact: Most HPV infections will clear up on their own without causing serious health problems. Some HPV types will cause warts on the genitals. These are known as ‘low-risk’ HPVs. But some types that have been linked to cancer are called ‘high-risk’ HPVs. They can increase your risk of developing some cancers linked to the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, penis, neck, and head.
That’s why having regular cervical screening (a smear test) is important, as it tests for HPV. Screening can help to detect any abnormal cell changes, which can lead to cancer if not treated.
Myth 5: Only people with multiple sexual partners get HPV
Fact: Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, including people who have sexual contact for the first time. The virus can be spread through sexual contact, including oral, anal, or vaginal sex.
You can also get HPV if you’ve only had one partner, as it can be inactive in your body for many years without you knowing. It’s important to have regular smear tests, as they can help to identify if you came into contact with the virus at some point. If the tests show that you have HPV, try and inform anyone you’ve had sexual contact with.
Unfortunately, there’s no routine test available to check if your partner has the infection. It’s also hard to tell when and where you may have got HPV from.
Remember, the more sexual partners you have, the higher the risk of HPV transmission.
Myth 6: You will have symptoms if you have HPV
Fact: HPV does not usually cause any symptoms in the early stages, and most people will not even know if they’ve had it. The NHS cervical screening programme aims to detect any abnormal changes in the cervix, or other affected areas.
Speak to a doctor or qualified health professional if you notice any new or unusual symptoms, such as changes in your regular menstrual cycle, or genital warts. Other symptoms to look out for include pain during sex, unusual vaginal bleeding, or discharge. Or you may have lower back, lower tummy or hip bone pain (pelvis).
Finding trustworthy information about HPV
It can sometimes be hard to find trustworthy health information online, and to separate myths and fake claims from the facts. Always remember to check if the information has come from a credible source and is backed by evidence and relevant experts.